Where to go

Quito and surroundings

Quito is the point of arrival for most visitors. The nation's capital is two distinct cities: colonial Quito, which has experienced a wonderful revival in recent years and contains all the beautiful colonial churches and historic buildings, and modern Quito, with a million-and-one hotels, restaurants, bars and cafés. The city boasts a wide range of excellent museums and it is the language course capital of South America. It takes a few days to get a feel for the city itself, and you could easily spend a week or more enjoying various nearby excursions. These include Otavalo's famous market, many excellent nature reserves on the western slopes of Pichincha and the wonderful thermal baths of Papallacta.

Avenue of the volcanoes

This term was coined by 18th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt to describe the chain of snow-capped volcanic peaks which crown the central highlands of Ecuador, south of Quito. Cotopaxi is the most popular climb for fit amateurs accompanied by a qualified guide. In the surrounding countryside are many haciendas, some opulent, all interesting, which have opened their doors to visitors. A worthwhile trip west from Latacunga takes in the Quilotoa Circuit, including a turquoise crater lake and surrounding native villages. A little further south is Baños for spectacular volcano watching when Tungurahua is feeling active, plus thermal baths, hiking, biking and horse riding. Riobamba lies in the shadow of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest summit and is the start of the popular railway ride over the Devil's Nose.

El Oriente: the Ecuadorean Amazon

East of the Andes lies the vast Amazon basin, the greatest rainforest on earth. Ecuador's slice of the Amazon, called El Oriente (the east), has extraordinary biodiversity, with up to 14 species of primates and 550 species of birds observed at a single site. There are several excellent and expensive jungle lodges offering four- or five-day packages from Quito. More economical tours can be booked through agencies in Quito, Baños, Tena, Puyo and Macas. Although independent travel in the jungle itself is not advisable, you can make your own way to towns like Tena or Misahuallí, on the highest navigable reaches of the Río Napo, for a taste of the 'near Oriente'.

South to Peru

El Austro, the Southern Highlands, have seen greater Inca influence than other parts of Ecuador and they are home to some the country's finest archaeology. Cuenca, Ecuador's most congenial city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has an excellent archaeology museum at Pumapungo and an immense blue-domed cathedral. It is also a good base for visiting Ingapirca, Ecuador's best-developed Inca site. Further south are Loja and Vilcabamba, the fabled fountain of youth alongside Parque Nacional Podocarpus. The colonial gold-mining town of Zaruma is another gem, which can be reached from either Cuenca or Loja. Roads continue south to five different land borders with Peru, each one a journey in itself.

Beaches and whale watching

With so much else going for it, Ecuador is seldom considered a beach destination. Yet the Pacific coast offers white sand, good surf, interesting national parks and terrific seafood. Guayaquil is a logical access point from the south. By Puerto López are Parque Nacional Machalilla and the best opportunities for watching humpback whales between June and September. Further north is the 'eco-city' of Bahía de Caráquez and nearby Canoa beach. Even further north is the wonderful surfing beach of Mompiche and the list only ends past the Río Esmeraldas, where mangroves take over and isolated Afro-Ecuadorean villages survive among the last vestiges of Pacific rainforest.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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